The People of Kumamoto

KUMAMON - The beloved mascot and symbol of Kumamoto
When people ask "What was Kumamoto like?" I have trouble responding. "It was powerful," I say. "Deep. Life-changing. I want to go back." I often think about the interaction with people in the shelters. To meet such a range of people, engage in deep conversations, and mutually impact each other's lives in just a 3 hour span of time is hard to imagine in times not in crisis. Their stories are hard to forget:

One young lady got married just two weeks before the earthquake. Moving from a faraway city to live with her husband, she now finds herself in a gymnasium with a large number of people where she knows no one and her husband is gone all day. There were two pillows, labelled "bride" and "groom" respectively with their wedding date, placed on a blanket which functioned as their marriage bed.

One 12-year-old girl came up after the concert and played many pieces for us. I was amazed she had so much music memorized, and asked if she had any chance to practice while in the shelter. "No," she said, "Actually, I gave up music when I entered junior high. There's no time for that anymore..." She explained that she was now involved in school clubs along with everybody else, and there was no way to fit in piano. When we left though, she said, "You reminded me of my love for music. I think I'll start up again."

One lady in her late 60's, staying in the shelter with her elderly mother, profusely thanked me for coming and playing. The two of them were so lonely and afraid of the aftershocks. She told me how she goes back to the house now and then to clean up after the earthquake, "but," she said, "I hear things falling and those heavy clay tiles on my roof moving with each aftershock, and it makes me nervous. I can't possibly sleep there." The conversation then suddenly switched to something that had obviously been on her mind, and I received my highest compliment ever! "You remind me of Amakusa Shiro," she said shyly. "I see light shining from you." In 1637, Amakusa Shiro led a rebellion of 37,000 peasants against Christian persecution and overtaxation by a corrupt government in an area near Kumamoto. The Tokugawa Shogunate swept in with an overwhelming number of troops and beheaded all 37,000, roughly half of whom who noncombatant women and children. There was a famous statue of him praying with eyes heavenward not too faraway.

So many more stories...


Art as an Emergency Supply

Two big earthquakes in 5 years! Each time, I went as a truck driver to deliver emergency water, food, fuel, and supplies...but each time I was asked to come back as an artist, as a musician. Never before have I realized the purpose and power of art. Before it seemed like something "extra," something people do when they have 余裕 (literally: surplus abundance of time, money, energy, etc.) in their lives. But through these disasters, I see that art is essential. Art is one of the essential emergency supplies! Why don't first responder teams include musicians?

The truth is counter-intuitive. People in Tokyo say, "It's too early for musicians. We need to wait until the important things are taken care of." Leaders in shelters say, "I'm not sure we should bring in music," wanting to stick to the basics and protect the people. People in shelters sometimes cover their heads with blankets and turn away from us. Then, we begin to play, and the atmosphere COMPLETELY changes. People stand in line to talk to us. People share their lives with us. They play and sing for us. They cry for us, and remember their humanity with us. NOBODY expects music to have such an effect. What a gift we have been given in music! May we learn as a people how better to embrace it for 人間の繁栄 (literally: everywhere-all-the-time flourishing of humankind).


Hage no Uta (The Bald Song)

"The next piece is one of Bach's best known works for organ, the "Little" Fugue in G Minor. I would like to dedicate this performance to my friend Brent," I say in a very serious voice. "Brent, would you please stand." Brent, one of the volunteers who came with us, stands. "This piece is probably better known by its other beloved title: 'The Bald Song'." Brent is bald.

As soon as I start to play, everyone in the shelter bursts out laughing. This little tune is known in Japan by the words: "Do you have hair on your head? Mine is fading away. Could I have your hair?" You can watch a video of this song on YouTube, showing famous people losing their hair. (What would Bach think?)

The concerts in shelters were full of humorous moments and serious moments, wondrously opening people's hearts to us.


Kumamoto Report

Schools start back up on Monday, May 9, following Golden Week holidays. Since most shelters are in schools, they will close at that time. Those who cannot return to their homes will be moved to other shelters, which will remain open an undetermined period of time. Earthquakes currently occur about every 2 hours, so people are still fearful. Water is running in most areas, but many water pipes broke (no wonder when you see the above picture!) contaminating the water supply for the foreseeable future. Food and water is being delivered to grocery stores but run out within hours. Gasoline is available in many areas. Quite a few older people have not been able to clean up their homes, because they are not strong enough and need help. At our four concerts this week, we passed out fliers with contact info for the Kyushu Christian Relief Center at Harvest Church, where volunteers are pouring in from around the country and around the world to meet such needs. At one shelter, we passed out mats to people who were only sleeping on a blue tarp or blanket. There are reports of the Noro virus spreading through shelters. There are reports of radioactivity coming up through cracks in the ground.

Needs are greater in rural areas but harder to get to. The Kyushu Christian Relief Center is sending out teams well over 2 hours each way to these areas with supplies and able hands to move debris. There were over 40 volunteers staying at the Relief Center (with limited running water and only two bathrooms!) but many others stayed in nearby hotels. The hotel we stayed in had running water but no drinking water in the building. There were cracks throughout the walls in our hotel room.

Pastors from all over Kumamoto gathered at the Relief Center this week for the first time since the earthquake to talk about needs in their churches and communities. I sat in for part of the meeting, hearing one pastor talk about his home being severely damaged and his family now living in a shelter. It gave me renewed vision to connect with the artists of Kumamoto, and on Tuesday and Wednesday, I was able to connect with some of them: a classical guitarist, a singer songwriter, a DJ, a pianist, and a outdoor event organizer. They are all doing volunteer work to encourage people in shelters.

Those who find themselves unhurt, with minimal damage to their homes, and supplies of food and water, feel it is their responsibility to respond in some way. A teacher was running one of shelters we visited. PTA moms were running another. Many people in Kumamoto are giving everything of themselves to care for others.
(Photographs by Riz Crescini, CRASH Japan, who we met last week.)


Relationship Building

Can you imagine staying in a shelter...aftershocks every two hours that powerfully shake the ground beneath your feet, rattling windows, and bringing gasps to everyone around you? Cardboard boxes are everywhere, containing emergency supplies or providing mats for sleeping. Lights are often switched off giving a mysterious cave-like feel to long corridors. Some shelters are dirty with sand walked in from parking lots. Some shelters have no running water or contaminated water at best. Some have nothing but thin tarps to sleep on, but some like the picture above have tents to provide the illusion of privacy. Announcements over speakers are loud and frequent. All of this has a deleterious dehumanizing effect.

The most important part of concerts in shelters is relationship building. First, we have to build trust with the leaders of the shelter by clearly explaining our intentions. ("We are here to help and play music. We are working with a Christian relief center, but we are not here to proselytize.")
Posing post-concert with leaders of a shelter in an elementary school
Then, we have to build trust with people through our music, as we attempt to bring a humanizing effect on a shelter. If we do it right, the music will open doors to relationships. Some people come up to us to learn more about the instruments or music.

Others want to ask questions about our "strange" and foreign lives, giving us an opportunity to ask about theirs. Children accept us as close friends and teach us all kinds of games.

Almost always, someone will approach with the words "I play too!" and share something.

The experience for me was overwhelmingly powerful, even life-changing. Playing music for people who are "doing fine" is like living in a world of black and white, stagnant and meaningless like BGM in a convenience store. What a contrast to a situation like this, where people respond so deeply to the music...with laughter, tears, and memories! This is when the true power and purpose of music is revealed, to bring color and depth to our lives and to help us connect intimately with others. We forget until these things are lost. Music is designed to humanize!


Kumamoto Week 2

Ellie Honea, clarinet & piano  /  Rachel Reese, violin  /  Roger Lowther, organ
I returned to Tokyo for prior commitments, but it gave me a chance to get my organ and recruit musicians to return to Kumamoto with me! We returned to Kumamoto again this past Monday. There are many stories to tell, including stories from the people who shared their lives with us at the concerts, but I need to get some rest. For now, here are some pictures from the first day.
Sending the organ from Tokyo to Kumamoto

Morning meeting and devotional at Harvest Church in Kumamoto
Roger on the phone trying to make a plan for the day
We joined a "takidashi" (cookout) team of volunteers at Uki City Hall
Setting up the organ
"Play more! Play more!"
About 300 people filed past us over a 2 hour period of time to eat freshly cooked meat and vegetables, with tears occasionally moving down their cheeks as they listened to the music. During breaks, we had amazing conversations with people and feel grateful for how people opened their lives to us.


Pray for Kumamoto

  1. Rescue and relief workers to be successful and safe while working around structurally unsound buildings.
  2. Comfort and rest for people staying in shelters and sleeping in cars amidst constant fear of aftershocks.
  3. Strength and wisdom for local churches, to know how best to respond to this crisis with limited resources.
  4. Unity between Christian workers across churches and denominations, sharing gospel community with surrounding neighborhoods.
  5. Wisdom for the Lowther family to determine how much and in what ways to be involved. 

When Japan reopened to the world in the mid 1800s, the powerful Hosokawa Samurai Clan in Kumamoto invited the American Leroy Janes to start a school in Western studies. (You can visit the Hosokawa House within the broken walls of Kumamoto Castle.) Many young men became Christians through Janes’ teaching, and on the last Sunday of January in 1876, a group went to a hill on the outskirts of town and made a solemn vow to “preach the gospel, even at the sacrifice of their lives.” After severe social persecution, many became famous Christian leaders known as the “Kumamoto Band,” influencing all of Japan.

Perhaps God is raising a new “Kumamoto Band” through this earthquake? Young people will be leading the relief movement, embodying what it means to be church to surrounding communities and tasting full-time Christian ministry for the first time. We saw how this affected the lives of so many after the 3.11 disaster in Northern Japan. (Read “The Unexpected Calling” by Virginia Lavallee, my wife’s sister, about how God brought her and others into Christian ministry this way.)